August 21, 2011

If you want to know something about America, there are few better places to start than the “Statistical Abstract of the United States.” Published annually by the Census Bureau, the Stat Abstract assembles about 1,400 tables describing our national condition. What share of children are immunized against measles, mumps and rubella? Answer: 92 percent. What state has the highest disposable per capita income? Answer: Connecticut, 33 percent above the national average. How big is the nation’s network of oil pipelines? Answer: 147,000 miles, about triple the length of the Interstate Highway System (46,751 miles).

I am a devoted fan of the Stat Abstract. In four decades of reporting, I have grabbed it thousands of times to find a fact, tutor myself or answer a pressing question. Its figures are usually the start of a story, not the end. They suggest paths of inquiry, including the meaning and reliability of the statistics themselves (otherwise, they can mislead or tell false tales). The Stat Abstract has been a stalwart journalistic ally. With some interruptions, the government has published it since 1878.

No more. The Stat Abstract is headed for the chopping block. The 2012 edition, scheduled for publication later this year, will be the last, unless someone saves it.

In the next months and years, we will stumble across countless examples of good government coming to grief. Budget pressures will force cutbacks and cancellations. Many will be desirable and overdue: programs that don’t work, have outlived their usefulness or favor the undeserving. But some will represent valuable activities that were reluctantly or foolishly eliminated to meet budget targets. The Stat Abstract’s fate belongs in this category.

The Census Bureau argues that it is condemned to painful triage. It has to choose between its basic job of devising surveys and collecting statistics about economic, social and governmental conditions and the less-important task of publicizing the results. Aside from conducting the population census every decade, the Census Bureau performs the surveys that — among other things — provide numbers on employment, voting, business, health insurance coverage and economic output.

Writing on his blog, Census Director Robert Groves says that the bureau “must find every way possible to become more efficient.” The Obama administration cut the agency’s 2012 budget, and Congress is pressing for deeper reductions. Already, Census has decided to shut six of its 12 regional centers at an eventual annual saving of $15 million to $18 million. More data are being collected via the Internet. Still, Census has 6,600 field interviewers, and efficiencies can’t compensate for all spending cuts.

So, the agency’s 2012 budget would eliminate the Statistical Compendia Branch, which compiles the Stat Abstract and other publications (example: the “County and City Data Book”). The cut: $2.9 million and 24 jobs. Both the book and online versions of the Stat Abstract would vanish. This is a mighty big loss for a mighty small saving.

It can be argued that much of what’s in the Stat Abstract is online somewhere. True — but irrelevant. Many government and private databases are hard to access and search, even if you know what you want. Often, you don’t. The Stat Abstract has two great virtues. First, it conveniently presents in one place a huge amount of information from a vast array of government and private sources. For example, the National Fire Protection Association tells us that 30,170 fire departments fought 1.45 million fires in 2008. Second, the footnotes show where to get more information.

Not surprisingly, librarians are howling about the Stat Abstract’s prospective demise. When she learned that the Stat Abstract was threatened, Alesia McManus, library director at Howard Community College in Columbia, started a Facebook page and launched a petition dedicated to reversing the decision. “If the library were on fire, this would be the reference book I would try and save first,” said one response. The “Statistical Abstract has for years been one of the top five reference books used by students and faculty at South Dakota State University,” said another.

The American Library Association — representing about 16,700 public libraries and more than 100,000 academic and school libraries — has thrown all its weight behind keeping the Stat Abstract. Unfortunately, that’s not much.

Without the Stat Abstract, statistics will become more hidden, and our collective knowledge will suffer. Must this be? If Census doesn’t rescind its misguided death sentence, the agency could contract with some wealthy private foundation to support the abstract. With a little imagination — not the government’s strong point — sales of the Stat Abstract might even turn a profit. MacArthur Foundation, Gates Foundation: Are you listening?

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